When I woke up this morning, the very first thought shouted at me by my brain was, "What if Death rented a room in your house?"
Neil Gaiman says that most of his stories start out with "What if . . . " or "If only . . . " so I immediately wrote down my "What if . . ."
. . . and didn't know what to do next. Normally, when I want to write a story, I take my idea, and just start. Something like:
Dorothy Hansen sat in her living room and did The Jumble. After Loretta went mad with Alzheimer's the previous Fall, Dorothy vowed to keep her 75 year-old mind sharp any way she could. She wasn't going to win any Major Awards, but she completed The Jumble more often than not,
Then I get stuck, because that's shite. But it's good information for me to use inthe building of this character. I would almost certainly cut that stuff before I even made it to an editor's draft.
The story really starts when I get here:
There was a knock at the front door. She pulled herself out of her chair and called out, "I'll be right there!"
The wooden floors of her living room creaked and popped beneath her as she walked. Her steps echoed down the hallway ahead of her.
She turned the deadbolt and pulled the front door open, revealing a tall young man.
"Yes?" she said.
"Do you still have a room for rent?" he asked, pointing to a sign in her front window.
She studied him briefly. He wore a dark coat and a white shirt. His hair was to his shoulders, and he held a small bag in one hand. He smelled nice, like old spices and leather.
"I have two rooms," she said, and motioned him into the house. "Upstairs, or down?"
"Let's take a look," he said, with a smile.
"The downstairs room is off the kitchen, down this hallway," she said.
She walked into the house, and he followed. The floorboards were silent beneath his feet. His footsteps were like sand blowing across dunes.
"I'm Joseph," he said.
"Mrs. Hansen," she said, "pleased to meet you."
That took me about 45 minutes to write, and it's still a mostly-naked skeleton . . . But there's stuff in there that I like . . . I think maybe this guy will have all sorts of Egyptian smells and things around him, and I like the way he glides over the floors.
About halfway through that, I thought maybe it would be better to tell it from the perspective of someone who already lives in the house. Maybe a college student, or something. I also don't know when it's set -- maybe that's not important.
But the thing is, I don't know what happens next. Oh, sure, he takes a room, Probably the upstairs one, so I can use the eerie silence of his walking on the staircase, but once this "scene" is done, it's a mystery to me.
So I guess this is where that outline comes in handy, so I know where I'm going.
I think it's interesting if a girl who lives nearby falls for him, I think he puts everyone at ease (that's what Death would do, right?) and everyone likes him . . . but he makes them feel slightly uneasy, and they don't know why.
Somehow, people have to start dying, and some suspicious neighbors decide that this guy is responsible. He's not. He's just Death, so he takes them, but --
OH! I have it!! Someone in the town is a killer. Someone respected or something, like a cop, or a priest, or something, and Death has come to town because there's going to be a lot of souls to take care of. What if it IS the police chief, so he's investigating himself?
What if Death falls in love with someone in the town? I don't think I'm going to let Death fall in love with anyone. I think that's been done to . . . death.
But I think I will let a neighborhood girl get a crush on him, and see what happens there.
What if? What if? Well, maybe I don't have it. But that's some stuff to build on.
Is that an outline? I still have no idea how the story ends, but now I have enough ideas to make me want to finish it.
I googled for "How to write a fiction outline," and didn't really find a definitive answer. However, I came across this site, where I found this very interesting and useful post:
Mileages vary, but I'm really glad I kept my day job. Writers who make their whole living from writing have a couple of problems:
They end up writing novels about novelists writing novels.
- They have to write whatever comes their way, whether it's interesting or not. On the couple of occasions when I had to write a novel for the money, it was like pulling my back molars with my fingers.
Still, Robert Heinlein did pretty well as a fulltime writer (until he got old and successful and self-indulgent). He also left us his five rules for writers:
- Writers write. They don't wait until they "have enough time" or "inspiration strikes."
- Writers finish what they write. No matter how much they hate the current project, they slog through to the last page.
- Writers never rewrite except to editorial order. Writing a novel is like building a deck or renovating a bathroom--you don't want to rip everything up and do it all over again. So you plan carefully, do it right the first time, and don't keep fussing with the story.
- (Kilian's Exemption) When you're starting out, you need your novel in progress to teach you a lot, so it's OK to go back and revise your ms. on the basis of what you're learning. (This is actually listed at 3a, but I'm using list tags. Sue me.)
- Writers put their work on the market. They don't just inflict it on friends and family.
- Writers keep their work on the market until it sells. So the first 15 or 20 rejections don't matter; you send it out again.
Heinlein argues that writers fail by breaking one or another of these rules, and he's right. I wrote my first novel in the army in 1966, sent it to one publisher, got rejected, and never sent it out again. Bad as it was, some wretched publisher would eventually have bought it, and my career would have started a decade earlier than it did."
I also found Something for nothing: advice for writers, and Ten Rules of Writing.
It's a lot of interesting stuff, and I laughed out loud when I thought, "Wow, there's useful information on the Internet, if you can get around the porn and shopping."